Thursday, June 25, 2009

I do understand, truly I do, exactly why the government has decided not to hand out free smear tests to women in England under the age of 25.

It's absolutely logical. Studies suggest that below that age more women have false positives - which scares them. Subsequent unnecessary treatment may be harmful - and even necessary treatment can occasionally cause damage to the woman and premature birth to her future children. And - though of course this couldn't possibly be a factor in the government's decision - increased smear tests cost money that could be spent on other more urgent causes. You know it makes absolute sense.

And yet, and yet.... If it makes such sense, how come countries like Denmark and Sweden set the test age at 23? How come the advice in many countries is to have the test at 21? And how come the rest of the UK offers smear tests at 20 (why do the words 'postcode' and 'lottery' come inexorably to mind?)

But actually, my main worry here isn't to do with the figures, the statistics or even the logic of the argument (nor am I, as so many press sources are today, citing the Jade argument). No, my main worry is for individual younger women, women who because of their youth are probably less aware of the risks of cervical cancer whilst at the same time being more at risk simply because they are in that life stage of having many partners. The hard fact is that if we lowered the smear test age - lowered it way down to the average age of sexual intercourse at 16, we would save lives. Not many, but a few. And the fact that we aren't doing so horrifies me.

I'm not arguing that cervical smears are a better use of money than other heart-rending health causes - who am I to deny the importance of treatment for leukaemia, infertility, heart disease. and who is anyone to make comparisons and judge who should get the cash?What I'm arguing is that tests would be a better use of money than so many other things that the Government spends on - warfare, thousand-pound-an-hour consultancy, and of course, second homes and dirty videos.

My suggestion? Just cut a fraction back on the expenses and put that money into bringing England into line with the rest of the UK when it comes to the life-saving smear test...

PS: When one writes an academic paper, one need to cite 'vested interests'. This isn't an academic blog, but here is mine. At age 31 I had my own positive smear test, which led to treatment for developing cervical cancer. Yes, even with the age bar held at 25 I would have been spotted and saved. But I still feel a shiver at the thought that any woman, absent the possibility of that test, will have to go through the treatment and the trauma that I suffered.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let's hear it for the mourners

I get a lot of letters - I mean a lot - from readers and listeners who have just endured the ending of a relationship.

But here's something that may surprise you. The ones that worry me are not those who outline in heart-rending detail their tears and rages, not those who report a deep loss of self esteem and trust in the world.

Yes, such responses are painful and not to be trivialised - but they are totally normal and healthy. Let emotion flow, get support for the agony, and in the end you will likely recover. Of course there are exceptions, those who are crippled by break-up grief for the rest of their lives; but as with a bereavement, typically nature takes its course and you come through. You may suffer, but you will surive.

No, the readers who terrify me are those that think that they won't - shouldn't - suffer. Those who try to carry on regardless and then wonder why they are finding life difficult. Cf poor, sad Katie Price, downing drinks and hitting the Ibiza dancefloor while shouting defiantly at reporters "I'm over Peter!"

I'm not criticising these readers - their hurt is just as strong as the griefstricken or depressed correspondents, and they need just as much support and pity. But who said that suffering isn't an inevitable part of having loved? Who said that one shouldn't mourn when that love dies?

What sort of world do we live in that persuades people that they should 'bounce back' from the ending of - in Katie's case - a five-year relationship that produced two children? What sort of world do we live in where the default option for coping with such an ending is not to lick our wounds and receive the support and comiseration of friends, but to think we have to carry on regardless drowning our sorrows in drink and yet another relationship. Only last week, in my postbag, I received a long letter from a woman worried there was something wrong because she didn't 'feel better' after her long-term partner had walked out on her... barely a fortnight before.

So let's hear it for the relationship mourners, those who have the courage to feel the pain and grieve the loss, to take their time to come back onto the dating scene, and to learn the lessons of the breakup before they emerge into the world again.

Short term they may seem emotionally weaker than those who don't even break step. Longer-term, however, they will be healthier, happier and far more able to love.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dying of embarrassment

Some worrying research results yesterday highlighted the differences in the way men and women react to the suspicion of cancer - that is, whether they hie themselves off to the GP within hours of spotting the lump/bump/lesion, or whether they instead burrow their heads even more firmly into the sand.

No criticism here. Fear, which must surely be the key motivator, is a powerful paralyser. And if men - for yes they are the ones doing the sand-burrowing - are terrified, then that's utterly understandable.

It is, however, also tragic. The abovementioned research, brought out to coincide with Men's Health Week, suggests that there is no biological reason why men are 60% more likely to develop cancer and 70% more likely to die from it - particularly from the gender-specific, sexually-linked types of cancer such as prostate and testicular. Yes, there are major lifestyle causes. but the high mortality rate is also down to an unwillingness to acknowledge symptoms, take them seriously and then report them.

It comes as no surprise that this unwillingness is higher when it comes to the gender-specific cancers - because the emotional discomfort factor is so much higher there. I know this myself - for every 20 letters I receive from women asking me to advise on sexual problems I get perhaps one from a man. A mixture of anxiety, machismo and shame is holding the guys back.
Men are, literally, dying of embarrassment.

The answer? Professor Alan White of the Men's Health Forum puts his finger on it when he appeals for health services to be more male-appropriate. And that doesn't just mean more available outside working hours - but more encouraging, more motivating, and more aware of y chromosome reluctance.

I am inexorably reminded of that classic self-development question: which do you choose to be, the rabbit or the headlights? Let's hope that by next year's Men's Health Week, men are beginning to choose the latter option...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Back again...

Yes, I confess, it's been a long hiatus. To be precise, six weeks since I last blogged.

I can't claim wild celebrations have kept me from my screen (although admittedly I have had a birthday since I last logged on - don't ask which one but it ended in a '9').

What I can claim is a slew of work. In particular - unusually for me, as my job rarely entails exotic foreign travel - a work-related trip to Istanbul to speak at the DISPAXWorld 09 conference. For those of you not in the know - as I wasn't until the conference organisers contacted me - this is an aviation get-together on the topic of disruptive airline passengers. Some impressive speakers, some fascinating topics, and a wonderful cruise on the Bosphorus, courtesy of our sponsor. In case you're wondering, I was presenting on sexually disruptive behaviour inflight; no, not so much the Mile High Club as sexual attacks, sexual abuse and public indecency. The model I've developed through the work I've done suggests that while there is no excuse for any of these, there are reasons - Air Lust is as induced an altered state as Air Rage and hence needs careful handling.

Other fascinating projects over the past six weeks? Developing a model of why we hate some celebrities and love others... writing about grey sex for the Menopause Matters magazine... preparing a paper on male contraception for the Journal of Family Planning. Also commenting on Posh and Becks's tenth wedding anniversary, giving my views on the importance of 'sharing', and holding forth about the pros and cons of mothers-in-law. It's a fun life.

But perhaps the thing that's most holding my attention right now is my weekly LBC programme. Listener figures are - gratifyingly - up yet again quarter-on-quarter, and Jim Davis and I seem to be building quite a community of supportive fans. The best bits, though, are the calls - about everything, anything, and things you certainly wouldn't mention to an above-mentioned mother-in-law. The caller who was planning to walk out on his family the next morning but hadn't actually broken the news yet. The sobbing girl whose partner had just abandoned her and her two-week-old baby. The gay police officer who was terrified to come out. The thirty-something woman who wanted me to tell her, in detail, on the air, how to masturbate. And these, of course, are the queries it's legal and decent to broadcast... the ones that aren't still get a reply, but by email.

OK, update completed and now I 'm fully back doing my blog, I hope to keep it a little more regular.

And if you need something else to read, check out the musings of Jane Matthews, a friend of mine whose delightful blog charting her self-imposed challenge to be "someone nicer" is something I myself read every day...